Peace & Justice Files

The star and the cross

By SKIP MENDLER
Posted 1/22/20

So the holidays have come and gone; I hope yours were joyful and fulfilling. Maybe I missed it, but I don’t recall hearing much noise this year about the traditional Christmas star display over …

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Peace & Justice Files

The star and the cross

Posted

So the holidays have come and gone; I hope yours were joyful and fulfilling. Maybe I missed it, but I don’t recall hearing much noise this year about the traditional Christmas star display over on Honesdale’s Irving Cliff. You might remember that a great kerfuffle erupted in the fall of 2018 (just before the midterm election, coincidentally) when an outfit called the “Freedom From Religion Foundation” threatened legal action if the borough didn’t move or dismantle the display, which includes a Christian cross at Eastertide, stands on public land and might therefore be unconstitutional. Signs, t-shirts and bumper stickers supporting the display erupted in very short order and outraged folks packed contentious borough council meetings. But after a few weeks (and the election), things calmed down and the issue seemed to disappear from the radar.

But the larger, underlying issue—the question of the proper relationship between church, state and society—has not gone away. If anything, it’s become more problematic. Donald Trump has relied strongly on evangelical support since the beginning of his campaign, and evangelical leaders have been quick to line up behind him despite his, shall we say, speckled history of personal conduct. This appears to be based on Trump’s promises to skew the federal court system to the right, oppose abortion and gay rights, restore organized prayer to public schools and otherwise advance the fundamentalist Christian agenda.

So why do I call this “problematic”? Don’t folks have a right to support candidates that support their issues? Let’s go back to that discussion about the Irving Cliff display. A few things got said—things like “this is a Christian town”—that raised red flags for many people. And while such sentiments may not have been widely voiced, they served as reminders of an ugly potential that lurks just under the surface. It’s not hard for a demagogue to construct a narrative that links the fate of the nation to divine favor, and then connects that divine favor directly to the person of the leader. So we see plenty of articles suggesting that Trump’s installation in the White House was “part of God’s plan for America.” Former Energy Secretary Rick Perry went so far as to call Trump “the Chosen One.” Preachers have written columns and given sermons comparing Trump to biblical figures like Samson, Nebuchadnezzar and the Apostle Paul. And among many, unwavering, unquestioning support of Trump is seen as essential for being not just a good American, but a good Christian.

Trump is happy to encourage this. “God is on our side,” he announced to a wildly cheering crowd of evangelicals, only a few hours after the attack that killed an Iranian general.

But let’s make no mistake. This unthinking but powerful combination of patriotic fervor and religious fundamentalism—the star and the cross—makes for a potent and toxic brew, inimical to pluralism and democracy, that is an ideal, growing medium for the virus we call fascism.

Fortunately, some evangelicals have begun to shake themselves free. The retiring editor of Christianity Today, a magazine founded by Billy Graham, wrote a scathing editorial recently calling for Trump’s removal from office. There’s now an organization called Vote Common Good that encourages evangelical Christians to withdraw their support from Trump.

I take great comfort in one fact: the Lord works in mysterious ways.

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Harold Appel

Thanks for the balanced and informative article on an important subject. I must take issue, however, with your reference to the Freedom From Religion Foundation as an "outfit" which conveys a disparaging tone, to my ears. This organization https://ffrf.org is a serious one and I'd remind everyone with their dander up that the prohibition against government establishing a religion creates the best protection for religions to flourish in our country.

Monday, January 27